Cradle 2 the Grave feels like about four different movies working at once, all of them stylized, none of them making much sense and maybe a couple of those being even slightly entertaining. It’s yet another of action producer Joel Silver’s low-budget, urban kung-fu flicks, of which he’s trotted out three in just under three years. (Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds were the first two.)
Much like comedian Christopher Guest makes his mockumentaries, so Silver does these films — same director (Andrzej Bartkowiak), returning actors (DMX, Anthony Anderson) and the occasional new player let in on the fun.
For new blood, Guest gives us, say, Harry Shearer. But the word “give” connotes an actual contribution to something. Let’s say Silver’s films “have” Tom Arnold and Steven Seagal. (While Cradle forces us to put up with Arnold, at least we don’t have to deal with Mr. Pudgy Ponytail.)
Nonsensically titled because it’s not a sequel, nor does it boast cradles or graves, Cradle 2 the Grave nevertheless has some moments that likely will satisfy the inner action idiot some of us have. It’s hard not to get juiced by the prospect of high-flying Jet Li taking on at least 20 ultimate fighters with only his hands, feet and an angry midget at his disposal (yes, that’s right). And how often do we see a motorbike-versus-ATV chase?
Still, as fun as it gets at times, it suffers from myriad problems, namely a kitchen-sink ending that doesn’t work. Does anyone really want to see Li and DMX teaming up to save the world from plutonium-peddling terrorists? Didn’t think so. Cradle is most tolerable when it lets its stars do their thing — Li with his exciting kung fu and DMX with … well, he doesn’t rap. Never mind.
As master thief Tony Fait, DMX is better at looking peeved than he is at holding on to the jewels he steals in the film’s opening sequence. Soon enough, a bag of black diamonds is in the hands of a rival and the more traditional white diamonds end up in Li’s passenger seat.
What does he have to do with all this? He’s Su, a special agent from Taiwan on the trail of the black diamonds Tony lifted. Su needs them back because the black diamonds are actually miniature plutonium pebbles belonging to the Taiwanese government. He must get them before his nemesis, Ling (Mark Dacascos), can sell them to the black market. But, wait, where does Tony come back in? Ling has kidnapped his daughter and is holding her ransom, thinking Tony has the plutonium diamonds.
For being little more than an excuse to bring a popular rapper and a popular martial artist together, Cradle is hopelessly convoluted. It’s a crime story, a spy thriller and a domestic drama with an unintentionally laughable, almost sci-fi twist thrown in at the end. Just try not to laugh when one character says the line “Hiroshima … two Hiroshimas … new world order.”
And if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously, you wouldn’t feel like scrutinizing some of the more wildly implausible stunts and situations.
For instance, how does Tony get that Dumpster behind his car? How does Ling walk right out of that exploding helicopter? If a guy palms a plutonium-packed pellet in his bare hand, wouldn’t that hand probably fall right off? In one crucial scene, what reason is there for Tony to wait to pick up his phone? Furthermore, after he leads police on an ATV chase through the city, why aren’t they swarming his palatial home? (This, of course, is a police force that earlier shuts down all underground trains within two minutes of a diamond heist.)
All of this silliness wouldn’t be a problem if Cradle weren’t so aggressively morose about things. DMX is all anger all the time, Anderson’s comedic talent is mostly wasted and Arnold’s comedic talent vaporized some time in 1994. (In addition to being unfunny, their end-credit improvisation is bold enough to believe people actually remember their same bad shtick from Exit Wounds.)
Only in the scenes when Li fights with his left hand casually tucked in his jacket pocket does Cradle achieve any sense of goofy cool. He’s been doing American films long enough now to pick better projects than this. If he doesn’t wise up, down will come his career, cradle and all.